02 April 2015

Saint or Winner? Which are you? Find out now!

Are you more likely to win the lottery or become a saint?

What are the Odds? You are LESS likely to become a saint than win the lottery!

Are you more likely to win the lottery or become a saint?

With Good Friday tomorrow many people will be turning their thoughts to religious matters this Easter weekend. While those who have been observing Lent will probably be looking forward to ending their fasts the less devout will be looking forward to having a lot at this week's massive Easter Sunday PowerBall jackpot. 

This led me to ponder what are the odds of becoming amongst the holiest of the holy and achieving Sainthood? In this edition of “What are the Odds?” I’ll be taking a look at just what your chances are of becoming a saint in comparison to taking home a Lottoland jackpot.

How do you become a saint?

Being “canonized” as a saint is path fraught with obstacles. To even have a shot at becoming a saint you need to be a devout Christian and a member of the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church. Unless you achieve sainthood through the Martyrdom Route (see more below) you will need to devout your life to the church as a priest or nun.

People who are eligible to become saints must also have lead “saintly lives” including acting selflessly and benevolently and providing an example of moral living to the masses. You need to act as a servant as God, and you need to accomplish this through the established processes – if you do this using your own unconventional methods you will likely be disqualified for being a heretic (apart from the “Joan of Arc Exception” – see more below).

There are two routes to sainthood depending on if you belong to the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church is slightly easier but still no walk in the park.

The Catholic Route

There are literally volumes of books written on the requirements of what is necessary to attain sainthood in the Catholic Church. In contrast to the Orthodox Church where sainthood is done a bit more “on the fly” in the Catholic Church there is a very strict process one must follow to be canonized.

In order to begin the process of your canonization a bishop would need to endorse you as a candidate. This would begin the preliminary investigations which would scrutinize your writings and speeches as well as eye witness accounts and any other evidence which has been gathered about you over the course of your life on earth. If you are deemed to have always acted as a “Servant of God” than a panel called the Congregation of Causes of the Saints will examine your piety in even greater detail including verifying that you are a true follower and not simply the leader of a cult or other heretical worship.

If the Congregation of Causes supports you then your case gets passed on to the Pope who can make the proclamation that you have “heroic virtue”. If you get the Pope’s approval then you will receive the title of “Venerable” - you don’t get a feast day but you could still have church built in your honour!


Beatification is what happens when you excruciatingly fall just shy of sainthood by achieving 3 of the 4 requirements. Generally this means that you’ve unfortunately only performed one miracle instead of the prerequisite two. You do get the title of “Blessed” and while you do get a feast day it’s not universally celebrated – so you might be a local legend but you won’t be a worldwide phenomenon.

The process of beatification seems to become easier in recent years however. Pope John II shook up the Catholic world in 2004 when he started handing out beatifications on an unprecedented scale. In the space of 2 years he beatified 1340 people – more than every Pope combined back until Sixtus X in 1585!

Full Sainthood

If you want to become a full saint then you’ve got to perform not one, not two but three miracles (2 additional ones to the miracle which you used for your beautification). Again, volumes have been written miracles by theologians of the Catholic Church and the requirements are very specific. In simple terms a miracle needs to be a supernatural event which can only occur either directly through God or through the intercession of a saint or saints. Examples include curing someone of an incurable disease, restoring an amputated limb or dividing the seas.

Becoming a full saint was exceedingly difficult in the past, in large part because of the position of the promotor fidei, literally the “Devil’s Advocate”, who’s role it was to present the argument against the canonization of a candidate. The Devil’s advocate sole task was to poke holes in the case of the advocatus Dei (“Promoter of the Cause) who argued in favour of the would-be saint. However, the process was made somewhat easier with the elimination of the position of the “Devil’s Advocate” in 1983. Now there is no argument against canonization, only an advocate who makes the case for the nominee.

Only when you are a full-fledged saint do you get a universally celebrated, obligatory feast day. You also will usually be the Saint of some activity, particularly if you are old school, for example Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals and Nicolas is the patron saint of sailors. You can become the patron saint of even more niche activities such as Bernard of Methon, patron saint of skiers, Saint Cajetan, the patron saint of gamblers and Saint Bibiana, the patron saint of hangovers.

The Eastern Orthodox Route

Orthodox Christians have a different process for Sainthood than the Catholic Church. The process is less formal and locally based so that “minor” saints play a much bigger role in the religion.

First off, miracles are not as important. While evidence of miracles is certainly smiled upon by the Orthodox Church it’s not a strict requirement like it is in the Catholic Church. There is much more focus on careful and holistic examination of the nominee’s life works and evidence of living a virtuous life as opposed to looking for flashy miracles.

Unlike the Catholic Church there must be evidence that you had a large following and that icons were painted of you and your life in order to keep your memory alive. Similar to the Catholic Church your case must be supported by a bishop in order to recognise the person as a saint. Then an investigative committee will be formed to report on the merits of your case to the Holy Synod who will make a final decision.

Since the process for the Orthodox Church tends to be much more subjective than the Catholic one and each jurisdiction maintains its own lists of often quite local saints, you have better odds of being canonized if you come from places such as Russia, Bulgaria and Greece. While there are about 10,000 officially recognized Catholic saints there is not a precise number of Orthodox Christian saints as it really depends which diocese you are asking. Eastern Orthodox saints gets a feast day as well as the added bonus of having their likeness painted on icons which the devout keep in their houses or on their person.

The Martyr Route (aka the Joan of Arc strategy)

Both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches also offer a third, “fast-track” route to sainthood – martyrdom, or suffering persecution or death for advocating or refusing to renounce your faith. This is especially useful if you want to be a Catholic saint since it means you do not need to have any of the hard-to-get miracles. Martyrdom can be a powerful method of becoming a saint, even providing an exception to the rule that heretics cannot be saints - as was seen when Joan of Arc was made a saint in 1920, despite being burned at the stake for heresy. Note that being a martyr does not guarantee sainthood and often there does not seem to be any fast rule about who qualifies although dying in a truly awful way seems to help. Edmund the Martyr, King of East Anglia, was shot with arrows by Vikings. Saint Ignatius of Antioch was eaten alive by lions. And Saint Lawrence was literally roasted alive on a giant grill by the Romans in 258AD and is now the patron saint of cooks!

One more thing…

You’ve probably noticed this already, but in order to become a saint in either church or via the Martyrdom Route, you need to be dead first and usually for some time, although there have been a few exceptions such as Pope John Paul II who achieved sainthood in record time having only died in 2005!

Odds of becoming a Saint vs. winning the lottery

As we’ve seen, becoming a saint is not easy. You must dedicate your life to religion and living without sin and even then your chances are slim. You have to live a truly extraordinary life in devotion to God and you have to perform a few miracles along the way. It seems to help if you lived 100 more years ago – usually the process of sainthood requires at least a century or two of death before you get nominated.

Although the calculations are rough, taking the number of people who’ve achieved sainthood divided by the number of people in the Catholic and Orthodox faith who could potentially have become saints during the same time period (remember women and children are able to become saints as well) your chances are estimated to be about 1 in 20 million, less than winning a lottery jackpot at Lottoland!


You have much better chances of winning the lottery than becoming a saint. As well, you can win a lottery while you are still alive! However if you may want to remember Matthew 10:24-27, Mark 10:24-27and Luke 18:24-27 which say that “it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” So if you do win it big on the lottery this Friday you may want consider being charitable with your winnings, sooner rather than later. Happy Easter!

This week's biggest jackpot is for the American colossus PowerBall with a massive €55 million jackpot on Easter Sunday.